Lessons From The Big Easy



Eight years ago in New Orleans, upon earning his first chance to be an offensive coordinator, Mike McCarthy was bound and determined to teach the West Coast offense better than anyone had ever taught it.

He had a plan all worked out for his first training camp with the Saints, in the summer of 2000. He was going to teach one of the offensive concepts each day, just one - such as the strong-side run, for example - and teach it as thoroughly as he could.

He'd go over all the details and variations of the strong-side run so that it would be forever ingrained in his players by the end of the day, and everyone would be ready to progress to the next concept, a different run or maybe a play-action pass off the strong-side run, the following day.

Only there was a major flaw in his teaching theory, at least as far as training camp was concerned.

The Saints' practice structure during camp featured an opening jog-through portion pitting the offense against the defense, with both sides working on the portion of their scheme being installed that day. Then later in the workout, after individual drills and other non-competitive portions of practice, the offense and defense would go live in team periods, running the jog-through elements at full speed with full contact.

But McCarthy had streamlined his teaching plan so much that there wasn't enough of the scheme for the offense to run on a given day to keep the defense honest. And with the help of a first-time defensive coordinator in Ron Zook, who was trying to impress everyone (particularly the defensive-minded head coach in Jim Haslett) with his aggressive array of blitzes, McCarthy's offense was getting blown up in his face in the oppressive south Louisiana heat.

"By the time the jog-through was over, the defense knew everything we had in for practice," McCarthy said. "We couldn't get a first down. Hell, we couldn't complete a pass. Meanwhile over there, they're blitzing us coming off the bus. They're just overloading us, beating us in every practice.

"It really factored in how we started the year, because we started the year so bad on offense. You have to get some confidence in your offense and have some success against your defense. That was a great lesson, because I knew at the start of the season our guys were not confident."

Indeed, McCarthy's inaugural season with the Saints began with his offense being held to 10 points or less in three of the first four games, leading to a 1-3 start.

He laughed this week as he retold some of the tales from that first training camp in Thibodaux, La., during a break in his preparation to return to New Orleans for the first time since his five-year stint as offensive coordinator there.

But however humorous they are now, the lessons were invaluable as McCarthy climbed the coaching ladder to eventually become the Head Coach of the Green Bay Packers, the team he'll lead into New Orleans for a big Monday Night Football clash.

Every stop in a coach's career exerts some influence along the way, but for McCarthy, much of what he learned in New Orleans, where he moved up from a position coach to a coordinator for the first time, has shaped the way he coaches the Packers today.


Going back to that initial training camp, McCarthy used that experience to change his teaching progression, among other things. Now he'll teach a handful of concepts in one day, introducing them to provide enough variety for practice but with review days, and more extensive work on those concepts, built into the practice structure later on.

He also has reduced his offensive installations from 13 to just nine, cutting back on the overall volume, after going into some contests that first season in New Orleans with "150 pass plays in the game plan, over-prepared."

Jerry Fontenot, McCarthy's veteran center for his first four seasons in New Orleans who's now his assistant offensive line coach, said he remembers as a player being impressed from the get-go with McCarthy's knowledgeable background in the offense he was running. With that, he knew it was only a matter of time before the teaching and coaching glitches worked themselves out.

"After that first year, we got to the point where we felt we could speed it up and Mike did," Fontenot said. "Coach McCarthy learned and we got better. Obviously it's important to get your offense to have some confidence on the field, because going about it the way we did the first training camp in Thibodaux was rough for us.

"I remember that our defense just seemed to have the right guy in the right hole every time we stepped to the line of scrimmage. But after you go through that first season of executing it and seeing the problems, the challenges you can face from particular defenses and the looks they give you, ... once you've experienced what that is like, you have a better understanding of what each play is designed to do."

It should be noted that despite the early struggles, McCarthy's skills as a teacher and coach were validated during that first season. Working for a defensive head coach in Haslett, McCarthy was entrusted with the offense. He was forced to sink or swim, a training ground that accelerated his development, and he did more than just survive.

Following a much-needed bye, the offense busted out with 31 points in a Week 5 win at Chicago that began a six-game winning streak and catapulted the Saints into the playoffs despite a rash of injuries on the offensive side.

Then, after losing to the St. Louis Rams in the regular-season finale to finish 10-6, the Saints came right back the following week to beat the Rams - then the defending Super Bowl champions - 31-28 for the first playoff victory in franchise history. The NFC Divisional Playoff loss the next week at Minnesota was the only time the Saints scored fewer than 20 points after the season's first month.

McCarthy was named NFC Assistant Coach of the Year by USA Today, and other successes followed, including the Saints leading the NFC in scoring and setting a team record for points in 2002.

No more playoff bids came, and a run at the head job in Cleveland in 2001 failed. But there were plenty of other learning experiences from all across the spectrum of the coaching "environments" McCarthy often makes reference to - the practice environment, the classroom environment, and the game environment.


During his early years as a play-caller, McCarthy admitted his emotions got away from him at times. He would prepare each game plan so diligently and thoroughly that it became too frustrating to see a lack of execution on game day.

Sometimes the blow-ups were on the sidelines, more often in the locker room at halftime. While almost every NFL coach is fiery, McCarthy learned that managing the fire in the right way would get the most out of the players.

Fontenot had played eight seasons with the Bears under Mike Ditka before coming to New Orleans, so he considered McCarthy's emotional outbursts "run-of-the-mill" by comparison. They did serve a purpose, though, as players got to know McCarthy better.

"Mike was pretty mild, trust me," Fontenot said. "It might seem severe to Mike, but perspective is everything, so I didn't find it to be over the top at all. But I think it's hard to hide passion, and that's what Mike has. He has a lot of passion for the game and he wants to win as badly as anybody. When you have that kind of drive and motivation, you can't hide it, and guys pick up on it.

"I have seen him be a little bit more calm here, but you can tell he still has the same burning desire."

Nowadays, with cameras on him at all times as he calls a game and studies his play sheet, McCarthy is by no means stoic on the sidelines but his displays of emotion, in either direction, are contained and appropriate given the situation.

It's the way he wants his team to be - passionate, but never too high or too low - so that the focus stays forward, particularly during the heat of a game.

"My temper got the best of me sometimes," McCarthy said. "That was a challenge for me. I feel like I've overcome that over the years.

"I used to do stupid stuff, ... and you can't call plays like that. It affects you. It carries over to the game. You have to be the one (staying composed), because whether you like it or not, your team is going to perform like that too, if you act that way."


One of the biggest transitions McCarthy had to make as a coordinator was learning how to speak, and communicate effectively, in front of a large group of players.

As quarterbacks coach in Kansas City, McCarthy's meeting room normally consisted of two to three players, plus him. As an offensive coordinator, he had to get up in front of at least two dozen guys, plus other assistant coaches, and many more players than that during training camp. It was a whole different deal.

He still remembers the first time he got up in front of the team, at the first mini-camp in the spring of 2000. Haslett had originally hired him to be New Orleans' quarterbacks coach, but he was given the opportunity to immediately interview for the coordinator position, and he got it. So there was the need for an impression to be made.

McCarthy was actually battling a bad head cold during that important presentation, but it may have been a blessing in disguise. Following all his notes may have become too arduous a task when under the weather.

"I knew what I wanted to say and I had it all on the outline, and if I had followed the outline I probably would have spoken for seven hours," he said. "I was so over-prepared for the meeting that five minutes into it, I didn't cover anything that was on the outline.

"I spoke from the heart, and that's where I realized that's how you have to do it."

{sportsad300}McCarthy has never taken a public speaking class, and he'd be the first to admit he won't win any awards for eloquence with his speeches. But he learned how to get a message across, whether it was in front of players or in coaches' only meetings, and he in turn gives his Green Bay assistants opportunities to speak in front of the entire team regularly, for their own professional development.

"He had a presence," said Russ Ball, the Saints senior football administrator during most of McCarthy's tenure there. Ball, who is now the Packers' vice president of football administration and player finance, also had worked in Kansas City with McCarthy during his six years with the Chiefs. "He had a commanding presence with the players. From a leadership perspective, I had seen a tremendous transition from when I saw him in Kansas City to what he was doing there.

"He was able to get all the coaches on the same page, all the offensive coaches doing the same thing and pulling together. And he was able to manage players."

Managing players as much as anything means managing their time for McCarthy. As often as possible, he keeps meetings for the Packers players to 15 minutes or less.

Even at the end of the week, when he has an endless list of items to go over during the final Saturday night meeting before a Sunday game, he'll whittle it down to two or three points of emphasis and keep that pre-game talk to eight minutes.

"There's got to be pace and tempo and interaction," McCarthy said. "That's how people learn and grow, in my opinion."

It's also how they respond.


It all fits together for McCarthy, as the fast, focused pace of the classroom should carry over to the practice field and ultimately to the game. The tempo is paramount in all environments.

For a coach who worked for two colleges and three pro teams before becoming a head coach in 2006, it's almost impossible to discern just where all the seeds of success were planted along the way. But there's no doubting that the move up to the coordinator level in New Orleans, one step away from a head coach, allowed many of those seeds to take root and sprout.

It's fair to say that the closer McCarthy got to the top of his profession, the more communication became crucial to his opportunities. Whether it was teaching effectively, channeling emotions productively, or speaking from the heart, communicating successfully became the way to hold players and coaches accountable to one another, and to mold a team in his own image, which he seems to be doing in Green Bay.

"I totally believe that he is," Fontenot said. "I believe the players are on board with what he's talking about. Players don't like to feel like they're being manipulated, because guys are smart. If you try to b.s. guys, I think you get a bad reaction from them. If you're just on the level with them and tell them where you're coming from, if it comes from the gut, it can't be wrong.

"I think the guys understand where he's coming from at all times. There's never any question."

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